By Staff Writer Sanah Bhardwaj
Lines of millennial and Gen-Z fans stretched past the San Jose SAP Center on the evening of April 8, all waiting patiently for the night’s main attraction: stand-up comedian, actor, and writer John Mulaney. A baby picture of Mulaney, along with his tour title, “From Scratch,” shined on every billboard and poster surrounding the stadium, creating an overwhelming sense of excitement for the show to come.
Mulaney’s tour poster featuring a childhood photo
As fans slowly filtered into the stadium starting at 7:30 p.m., they were met with Mulaney’s first opening act, actor-comedian Seaton Smith. Though Smith’s fast-paced, audacious comedy didn’t quite match the easygoing energy of Mulaney’s audience, viewers were receptive and laughed throughout his set. A half hour later, Mulaney sent out his second opener, comedian Ricky Velez. Velez’s laid-back, slow-paced jokes starkly contrasted Smith’s but better matched Mulaney’s sense of humor and sent the audience into fits of laughter. An hour later, the audience roared in anticipation as the speakers of the SAP Center finally boomed: “JOHN MULANEY!”
Though everything seemed the same to the audience, this was no normal show for Mulaney. Despite hundreds of performances under his belt from an 18-year career, his current From Scratch tour marks his first time performing since leaving drug rehabilitation, splitting up from his wife of six years, and having his first child with actress Olivia Munn in November 2021.
Mulaney and his five-month old baby, Malcolm
Mulaney never hid his substance addiction. In his 2012 special, John Mulaney: New in Town, he joked, “I used to drink, then I drank too much, and I had to stop. That surprises a lot of audiences because I don’t look like someone who used to do anything.” However, even with his openness, Mulaney always relegated his “dark past” to the background of his comedy. Instead, he created and prioritized a “goody-two-shoes” aesthetic, often through self-deprecating humor. In the same show, he quipped, “I look like I was just sitting in a room with a chair eating saltines for 28 years and then walked right out here,” and “When I’m walking down the street, I don’t think anybody goes, ‘Hey, look at that man.’ They’re just like, ‘Woah! That tall child looks terrible!’” Mulaney’s hilariously puritan comedy coupled with his cartoonish voice and animated body language made him stand out against his fellow comedians, and his fans have come to adore him for it.
Mulaney in his comedy special “John Mulaney: New in Town”
But in 2021, Mulaney’s clean public persona fell apart. Following his rehab stint, hasty divorce, and new child just months after his separation, public backlash grew. In addition, because Mulaney had centered so much of his comedic and personal image around his charming relationship with his wife, their separation made fans distrust Mulaney’s character, even though they didn’t know much about the divorce. They started to question whether the Mulaney they saw on Netflix was actually the real him.
On April 8, Mulaney sauntered on stage slower than usual, but he donned the same cheery tone. Within the first five minutes of the show, Mulaney addressed his apparent lack of energy — “I’ve gotten slower in my old age” — and instantly jested about his past drug addiction when referring to how vivacious he used to be — “I wonder what caused that.” Mulaney’s physical verve was at a bare minimum; instead, he was slow-paced, letting the audience digest every line he spoke.
Mulaney looks out on stage before his “From Scratch” show in Dallas, TX
Unfortunately, these lines weren’t too easy to swallow. Mulaney uses From Scratch as an opportunity to try to piece his broken reputation back together — he knows his audience will never view him the same as they did before his addiction and divorce, and he compensates by reminding the audience how horrible he views his life to be — “Don’t be like me,” he reminded young ones in the audience. This uncomfortable self-awareness was a recurring theme throughout the night, as almost the full hour of the show was focused on Mulaney’s addiction and recovery process. The audience’s laughs seemed to be out of awkward obligation instead of from the gut because Mulaney only talked about his problems. While this is fine in moderation, Mulaney often seemed defensive or as if he was telling jokes for the audience’s validation. Whether it was jokes about his “star-studded [addiction] intervention” or how he manipulated doctors into giving him prescription drugs he didn’t need, it seemed as if Mulaney’s show was cathartic for only him, not for anyone else.
That’s not to say Mulaney wasn’t funny. He’s John Mulaney. His fans love him unconditionally, and with every opportunity he gave his audience to burst into fits of laughter, they took it. Still, the “goody-two-shoes” Mulaney we once knew is long gone, replaced with one who isn’t afraid to discuss the experiences that make him human. Of course, Mulaney embracing his humanity instead of hiding it for the audience’s sake is a good thing; however, one can’t help but feel like Mulaney’s humor has become too dark and tragic to be relatable. Laughs now come from a place of pity, not adoration, and that’s a dismal thing.
Overall, From Scratch does its best to make light of a truly horrendous year for John Mulaney, but its jokes don’t land as well as they should. Maybe it’s because Mulaney is performing so soon after leaving rehab, or maybe Mulaney is using From Scratch to distract himself from the life-changing events that have transformed him within the last few years. Regardless, one thing is for sure: Mulaney is trying his hardest to rebuild from the ground up, and one can only hope that he succeeds.